© Lisa Stöberl

Ludwig Guttmann Prize for Dr Anja Raab


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She gives people the strength to breathe. Anja Raab is a physiotherapist who researches breathing therapies for patients suffering from spinal cord injuries. Now her doctoral thesis has been awarded a prestigious prize.

Your doctoral thesis was awarded the prestigious Ludwig Guttmann Prize. What does this recognition mean to you personally?
I am immensely proud to have been selected to receive the Ludwig Guttmann Prize 2021. It means a great deal to me, as it underlines the potential of respiratory therapy and elevates it to the status it deserves. Who is more aware of the fact that only a functioning lung makes all other therapy and rehabilitation techniques possible than patients suffering from spinal cord injuries? I sincerely hope that many patients will benefit from the new findings.

How did you progress from physiotherapy to research?
I have been active in the field of physiotherapy for 19 years. A research placement with Lisa Harvey in Australia, and another with Joy Bruce in the USA, have sharpened my perspective on the enormous potential healthcare still harbours. They encouraged me to question existing concepts and pursue research. That was the starting point for my doctoral thesis.

Why is respiratory therapy so important when suffering from spinal cord injury?

The higher the level of a spinal cord injury, the less muscle remains. The problem is that coughing is no longer possible without abdominal muscles. The secretion that builds up is retained in the lungs and cannot be coughed off. This can result in pneumonia, which is unfortunately still the main complication after spinal cord injuries.

You specialise in improving the breathing of spinal cord injury patients and dedicated your doctoral thesis to this topic. How did that come about?
I always felt that I would like to help where there is genuine need. After I started my master’s degree in physiotherapy, I met Gabi Müller at the Paraplegic Centre Nottwil in Switzerland. She offered me the opportunity to write a doctoral thesis on the subject of breathing therapy. We then conducted various breathing projects together, which were backed by Wings for Life.

 (Walter Eggenberger)
© Walter Eggenberger

How is respiratory therapy perceived in science?

I believe that our profession needs more exposure in the health sector. I am often asked why I, as a physiotherapist, pursue a career in science. Yet topics like respiratory therapy are so critical. The coronavirus pandemic brought the issue very much to the fore. Pneumonia can be very dangerous, especially for spinal cord injury patients. If “basics” like breathing fail to work, then even devices like an exoskeleton that allows you to walk a few steps are of no use. That is why I greatly respect Wings for Life for supporting respiratory therapy projects.

Your therapy gives people the strength to breathe – what gives you strength?
In my time as a physiotherapist, it was the patients who gave me strength. There are so many extraordinary people out there. I got on well with many of them and formed deep bonds. I am still friends with some. What also gives me a great deal of strength is my family of two children and my husband.

 (Private)
© Private

What is your next career move?
I am currently the coordinator of research in the health department of the Bern University of Applied Sciences. In addition, the data collection of the RESCOM project funded by Wings for Life will soon be completed, which means the next step will be to analyse and publish the data. I have also recently taken on the role of module supervisor in the master’s programme for spinal cord injury studies at the Bern University of Applied Sciences. I am someone who simply cannot sit still. (laughs)

What is your hope for the future?
I am very happy with the way things are now, but I wish for good health. A healthy family is the most important factor for me. And I wish that people would be less guided by material things and reflect on what is truly significant in life.

Anja Raab’s doctoral thesis is a significant step towards a better understanding of the treatment of respiratory complications after spinal cord injury. The thesis resulted from projects and studies carried out together with Gabi Müller and was backed by Wings for Life.